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The Improvised Musical
Published on Sunday, 14 August 2011

3 stars

C venues - C (venue website)
3-15, 17-29 Aug, 6:00pm-7:00pm
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

 Family-friendly. Suitable for all ages.

Improv is a desperately hard genre to review - the show, after all, is different every time. I suspect No Shoes Theatre were a touch unlucky on the night I went along, maybe because of all the umbrellas they put up indoors (more on that incongruous point later). But I still got to enjoy an entertaining display of off-the-cuff musical theatre - which is all the more impressive because it's improv packaged in its very purest form.

The six men and women who make up the cast, all dressed in no-nonsense primary colours (and of course, no shoes), sit in a line on stage the whole time. With no conferring allowed, each intervention they make needs to plant ideas in their fellow performers' heads, as well as the audience's. It's a difficult challenge they've set themselves, and on this occasion the threads didn't quite come together - the sketched-out plot based around an airport and magic bubblegum never quite made enough sense to me.

Leading man Michael Slater, though, made his obvious experience count, often chipping in with a stellar punchline or kicking off a well-chosen song.  And the finale, which finally delivered the audience's requested title song I'm Flying While I'm Crying with breathtaking aplomb, did much to justify the slightly tortuous path that had got us there.

No Shoes Theatre have a couple of neat tricks which set them apart from their improvised-musical peers. First, they improvise props - in the sense that they collect and exploit objects the audience happen to have brought with them - which on the rainy night I attended, basically meant they had a whole load of umbrellas to hand. It's a nice thought, but it felt slightly half-baked. Because they gather up far more bits and pieces than they actually need, they don't truly commit to using any of them - depriving us of the excitement of wondering just how they're going to showcase that obscure and irrelevant item some twisted individual has brought along.

Perhaps more successful, an opening "name that tune" quiz rewards winning audience members with flash-cards, which they can wave to force a particular action. One of them is "sing a song", which for an improvised musical seems a little unnecessary - but others are more creative, provided, of course, they're entrusted to suitably creative hands. I had a slight sense, though, that the cast were occasionally waiting for the cards to be played; the spoken build-up to the songs was often fidget-inducingly slow. I lost count of the number of times they finally broke into song, but it was somewhat less than I'd expected from the advertised hour of off-the-cuff tunes.

Still, it was a difficult night - the start was delayed by ten minutes waiting for a busload of punters to arrive - and it's an impressive enough feat to improvise any musical at all.  As one of the longer-standing musical improv groups here in Edinburgh, No Shoes clearly have a formula which works, most of the time. I saw plenty to persuade me that on their day, The Improvised Musical will indeed fly high.

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